Jefferson Davis and Pio Nono
Jefferson Davis was always a friend to Catholics. In his youth as a boy he studied at the Saint Thomas School at the Saint Rose Dominican Priory in Washington County Kentucky. While there Davis, the only Protestant student, expressed a desire to convert. One of the priests there advised the boy to wait until he was older and then decide. Davis never converted, but his early exposure to Catholicism left him with a life long respect for the Faith.
When the aptly named anti-Catholic movement the Know-Nothings arose in the 1840s and 1850s, Davis fought against it, as did his great future adversary Abraham Lincoln.
During the Civil War, Pope Pius wrote to the archbishops of New Orleans and New York, praying that peace would be restored to America. Davis took this opportunity to write to the Pope:
RICHMOND, September 23, 1863.
VERY VENERABLE SOVEREIGN PONTIFF
The letters which you have written to the clergy of New Orleans and New York have been communicated to me, and I have read with emotion the deep grief therein expressed for the ruin and devastation caused by the war which is now being waged by the United States against the States and people which have selected me as their President, and your orders to your clergy to exhort the people to peace and charity. I am deeply sensible of the Christian charity which has impelled you to this reiterated appeal to the clergy. It is for this reason that I feel it my duty to express personally, and in the name of the Confederate States, our gratitude for such sentiments of Christian good feeling and love, and to assure Your Holiness that the people, threatened even on their own hearths with the most cruel oppression and terrible carnage, is desirous now, as it has always been, to see the end of this impious war; that we have ever addressed prayers to Heaven for that issue which Your Holiness now desires; that we desire none of our enemy’s possessions, but that we fight merely to resist the devastation of our country and the shedding of our best blood, and to force them to let us live in peace under the protection of our own institutions, and under our laws, which not only insure to every one the enjoyment of his temporal rights, but also the free exercise of his religion. I pray Your Holiness to accept, on the part of myself and the people of the Confederate States, our sincere thanks for your efforts in favor of peace. May the Lord preserve the days of Your Holiness, and keep you under His divine protection.
Pio Nono responded to this letter as follows:
“ILLUSTRIOUS AND HONORABLE PRESIDENT,
We have just received with all suitable welcome the persons sent by you to place in our hands your letter, dated 23d of September last. Not slight was the pleasure we experienced when we learned, from those persons and the letter, with what feelings of joy and gratitude you were animated, illustrious and honorable President, as soon as you were informed of our letters to our venerable brother John, Archbishop of New York, and John, Archbishop of New Orleans, dated the 18th of October of last year, and in which we have with all our strength excited and exhorted those venerable brothers that, in their episcopal piety and solicitude, they should endeavor, with the most ardent zeal, and in our name, to bring about the end of the fatal civil war which has broken out in those countries, in order that the American people may obtain peace and concord, and dwell charitably together. It is particularly agreeable to us to see that you, illustrious and honorable President, and your people, are animated with the same desires of peace and tranquility which we have in our letters inculcated upon our venerable brothers. May it please God at the same time to make the other peoples of America and their rulers, reflecting seriously how terrible is civil war, and what calamities it engenders, listen to the inspirations of a calmer spirit, and adopt resolutely the part of peace. As for us, we shall not cease to offer up the most fervent prayers to God Almighty, that He may pour out upon all the people of America the spirit of peace and charity, and that He will stop the great evils which afflict them. We, at the same time, beseech the God of pity to shed abroad upon you the light of His grace, and attach you to us by a perfect friendship.
” Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, the 3d of December, 1863, of our Pontificate 18.
(Signed) “.Plus IX.”
In his captivity after the war, Davis was remembered by Pius. The Pope sent the imprisoned Davis his photograph with the text from Matthew 11:28 ‘Venite ad me omnes qui laboratis, et ego reficiam vos, dicit Dominus.’ (Come to me all all ye who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest, sayeth the Lord.)
Davis wrote warmly in later life about the consolation that he received of this token that the Pope remembered him. His family in its hour of need received assistance from Catholics, as his wife Varina recalled: “No institution of my own Church offered to teach my children. One day three Sisters of Charity came to see me and brought me five gold dollars, all the money they had. They almost forced me to take the money, but I did not. They then offered to take my children to their school in the neighborhood of Savannah, where the air was cool and they could be comfortably cared for during the summer months.”
When Davis died at 81 in New Orleans, Catholic clergy helped officiate at this funeral. I am sure Davis would have had no objection.